Bo | Transcending The Limitations Of Time
Updated: Apr 22
Time is so much part of our lives; it affects everything we do. Clocks are everywhere, and with international travel people are so aware of different time zones. People seem to be in such a rush, always looking at the clocks, always racing against time. Albert Einstein is famous for having explained that there are two components that frame everything in the physical world: space and time. Time is fundamental to the nature of our existence. It is at the heart of what it means to live in this world.
A story is told of a person who traveled to America and upon returning to Europe went to speak to the Chofetz Chaim, one of the great sages of pre-war Europe. The Chofetz Chaim asked him, “tell me about America – what do people say in America?” The traveler said that in America people say “time is money,” to which the Chofetz Chaim famously responded, “time is life.”
Our lives on this earth are really an accumulation of time: the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades that we spend on earth. When a second ticks by, you don’t get it back. When a minute goes by you don’t get it back. A day passes, you don’t get it back. The time our soul is allotted to be here in this world – that is life. Time defines our very existence.
It is interesting to note that while time is such a fundamental part of life, it is intangible. This is one of the great lessons of Judaism: the most important things very often are unseen. G-d Himself – the Creator who sustains everything, as we say in our morning prayers “every day He renews creation” – is intangible. The world cannot exist for one second without G-d’s direct life-giving input, and yet He can’t be seen. The very foundations of this physical world are held together by G-d who is intangible. G-d specifically created the world in such a way that some of the most important things can’t be seen.
The power of renewal
With this introduction we can now better understand something from this week’s portion. The last two portions we read were about the slavery and the beginning of the plagues. In this week’s portion we read about the conclusion of the plagues, and how Pharaoh eventually says “go” and the people leave. This week’s portion marks the moment of the Exodus from Egypt, the point where the Jewish People attained their freedom.
This portion contains a number of important mitzvoth, commandments, which G-d gives to Moses and Aaron to transmit to the people while they are still in Egypt. Some of these instructions are very easy to understand as they concern the actual Exodus: preparing the paschal offering, putting the blood on the doorposts – all of these commandments were given to the people before they left, because these were part of the preparations for leaving Egypt.
But there is one commandment in this week’s portion which stands out as unrelated to the preparation for the Exodus: the commandment concerning the Jewish calendar. It says in chapter 12 verse 1 that G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim, “this month will be for you the first of the month.” According to the Talmud the words Hachodesh hazeh, “this month,” should not be read as such but rather as hachidush hazeh, “this renewal” will mark the beginning of the month. This is not referring to the month they left Egypt as being the first of the months – that is stated in the second half of the verse, where is says rishon hu lachem l’chodshei hashana, this month, Nissan, “is to be the first of the months of the year.” The first half of the verse says this renewal will be for you the beginning of the month. What is this renewal?
According to the Talmud, G-d took Moses outside and showed him a new moon because the months of the Jewish calendar are determined by the lunar cycle. The Sages of the Talmud, based on the Oral Tradition and their expert knowledge of astronomy, were able to calculate exactly the length of the lunar cycle – about 29.5 days, with a number of decimal points beyond. The moon starts out very small at the beginning of the month, just a sliver of moon, and it gets larger and larger – what people refer to as the moon “waxing,” till it becomes a full moon in the middle of the month. Then it gets smaller – what people refer to as the moon “waning” – till eventually, at the end of that twenty-nine-and-a-half-day cycle, the moon disappears completely. When it reappears, that is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month.
This chidush, this renewal of the moon, marks the beginning of the month. The Jewish calendar is based on the cycle of the moon. It does have a solar component because it has to accord with the seasons. (For example, the Torah says that Pesach, the festival of Passover which marks the liberation from Egypt, has to be celebrated in the springtime as it occurs in the land of Israel. Therefore, every few years – seven times in every nineteen years – an extra month is added to balance out the calendar because the lunar year is actually eleven days shorter than the solar year.) But it is fundamentally a lunar calendar with a solar component to keep it in sync with the seasons.
The lunar calendar as a symbol of freedom
Why was this commandment given to the people while they were still in Egypt? It is not even a commandment directed to the people as individuals but rather is directed to the great Sanhedrin, the highest judicial authority comprised of the seventy-one judges who sat in Jerusalem whose job it was to declare the new month. Witnesses would come forward and say they saw the new moon. The Sanhedrin would cross-examine them and then declare a new month based on their testimony’s validity.
The sanctification of the month and consequently the sanctification of the calendar is in the hands of the leadership of the people, performed on behalf of the whole nation. In fact, the calendars that we have to this day have been sanctified by the Sanhedrin. As the Roman invasion and took hold and exile was imminent, the Sanhedrin, along with all other Jewish institutions, was under threat of disintegration. Therefore, the Sanhedrin sanctified all future new months by establishing a set calendar for generations. We rely on that established calendar because the calendar has to be sanctified by the great Sanhedrin as the representatives of the people. When G-d gave the Jewish People this commandment, essentially He was saying, here, you take charge of this calendar and sanctify it based on your calculations of the lunar cycle. The Sanhedrin had exact calculations and knew precisely where and when the new moon would be sighted – as evidenced by the calendar they established for all future generations – but they waited for witnesses and cross-examined them because the people had to be involved in establishing the calendar. It could not be done based purely on cold scientific calculation; it was dynamic, involving everyone.
Indeed, establishing the calendar is an important commandment as it determines the dates of all the festivals. But why was it given to them at this time, in Egypt? The Torah was revealed at Mount Sinai seven weeks later – could this commandment not have waited? Why was this commandment given before the others? And why was it given while they were still slaves in Egypt?
The Sforno, one of our great commentators from the Middle Ages, offers an explanation, as follows: from here on, says the Sforno, the months belong to you and you can do with them as you please. In the time of the slavery your days were not your own; they were according to the will and the whim of other people.
What the Sforno is saying is that this is the commandment of freedom. The benchmark of freedom is time. When you were slaves in Egypt your time was not your own. The Egyptian taskmasters dictated to you what Pharaoh wanted done, how and when; your time did not belong to you. This is the first commandment because this is the commandment which heralds your freedom. G-d is saying I am giving you the greatest gift of all, the gift of time, represented by the establishment of the calendar. It is more than just the establishment of the calendar – G-d was saying, I am handing over to you the power to determine the calendar. As we know, the great Sanhedrin had the authority to add a day to the month – sometimes the month would be twenty-nine days, sometimes thirty. They even had the authority to add an extra month to align the lunar calendar with the solar one. G-d was saying, I am handing over to you your own calendar – within limits and within a certain framework of astronomical principles – but you own your time. This chidush, this new moon, belongs to you, lachem. Lachem in the Hebrew is the possessive; you own it, because now you are becoming free. Thus this commandment had to be given before all of the other commandments, because their freedom is a prerequisite to all the other commandments.
Freedom means being the master over time
We learn a very important lesson from this, and that is that a person who feels their time is not their own, that they are not the master of their time, is indeed not free. We all have responsibilities and commitments and there are certain things we have to do, from a legal point of view, a moral point of view, from all different aspects. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, we are actually the masters of our time. The way we spend our time is our choice and we have to take responsibility for those choices. A person who feels that time is the master over them and that they cannot make time for the important things in life – spending time with family, studying Torah, making a contribution to the community, going to pray, and the many different commandments regarding helping others – such a person is really saying I choose not to allocate time for those things.
Time is a choice. A person who feels he or she does not have time for the important things in life is in fact not free but a slave. This self-imposed slavery is an illusion. People say, I just don’t have the time. But we must take responsibility and realise that we do have power over our time. This is what the Sforno refers to in his commentary, namely, that the point of freedom began when G-d said hachodesh hazeh lachem, this month belongs to you. You own your own time.
There is another message inherent in the fact that this commandment was given to them while they were still in Egypt, when they were not yet entirely free, and that is that we have the capacity to transcend our circumstances. Here they were enslaved by Pharaoh in the darkness of Egypt, and yet G-d said you own your time. Even under such harsh circumstances you have the capacity to transcend your limitations.
This theme – the ability to rise above circumstances – is central to Judaism. This is the first commandment, hachodesh hazeh lachem, the sanctifying of the new moon. (We do find in the book of Genesis that there were other commandments given, like the commandment of be fruitful and multiply; circumcision given to Abraham; and the commandment not to eat the sciatic nerve in the animal, given to Jacob. But those were given to them as individuals and were only incorporated as part of the national Torah at a later stage.) The commandment to sanctify the new month was the first commandment given to the nation as a whole, and is therefore a very significant one.
Sanctifying the physical world
Why is sanctifying the new moon the first commandment of Judaism? We can understand why it is given to the people while they are in Egypt, because time is so important to a free person and this commandment symbolizes freedom. But why is this commandment the first commandment of Judaism, the first one they receive as a nation?
Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the late Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, expands on the words of the Sforno and explains that time represents the physical world. As mentioned earlier, Albert Einstein said there are two components to the physical world, space and time. By G-d saying “here is time, it belongs to you” He is saying that we have the capacity to rise above the physical world. Judaism maintains that we can take the physical world and elevate it to a higher plane. This is why Judaism has never preached celibacy, it has never preached abstention from the physical world. Rather, you take the physical world and lift it up – that is how we transcend it. Owning time means that we are not enslaved by the physical world; we are the masters of the physical world and have the capacity to rise above it. This is the overarching message of Judaism: that we have the capacity to rise above the physical world and that the physical world is the platform, the arena, to do good; to focus on the eternal values by which we live, the commandments that G-d has given us: helping others, not speaking lashon hara, prayer, study, making a difference in the world, giving charity – all of these things are part of the good that can be done in this world, and the physical world is the platform to do them. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The physical world is not the master; we – our souls – are the masters over the physical world.
Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says in his commentary in the Book of Bamidbar: the human being is not a body who happens to have a soul; it is actually a soul that has a body – and we have to view ourselves as such. The body and the physical world are the tools to fulfill our soul’s mission, the mission that G-d has given to us to connect us to eternity. That ability to rise above time – the most potent symbol of the physical world – is what the Exodus from Egypt is all about. And that is why this commandment is the first of all the commandments.
The purpose of the Exodus: to be G-d’s people
The Exodus from Egypt was not just about attaining physical freedom or political freedom. It was about something much more profound. When G-d designated Moses as the instrument through which the Jewish People would be brought out of Egypt, He said “and you will come and serve Me on this mountain,” referring to Mount Sinai where the Torah was given. In last week’s portion we saw in chapter 6 verse 6 that G-d says “therefore say to the Children of Israel, I am the Lord. I will take you out from underneath the suffering of Egypt, and I will save you from the labour, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.” But it doesn’t stop there. G-d says, “and I will take you to Me as a nation and I will be for you a G-d and you will know that I am the one who took you out of Egypt.” Right from the beginning we are aware that this was not just about liberation, about being free for the sake of being free. It was about being free in order to be a nation to G-d, in order to fulfill His commandments so that we will know that He was the one who took us out.
In these aforementioned verses are contained four expressions of the redemption: I will take you out, I will save you, I will redeem you and, finally, I will take you to be My nation. These four expressions of the redemption are the framework, the “big picture,” of the exodus from Egypt. The four cups of wine that we drink at the Pesach Seder correspond to these four expressions of redemption: I will take you out, I will save you, I will redeem you and I will take you to be My nation. The culmination of these four expressions – the ultimate purpose – is to be connected to G-d, to follow His commandments, and to know that He is the One Who took us out of Egypt. The redemption is not the end goal but the means to the goal, namely, being servants of G-d.
The physical world as a means to an end
Judaism has always maintained that the physical world is not a value in itself, it is only the arena in which to achieve eternity. Freedom is a value inasmuch as we choose how to use it. Freedom is for the purpose of being able to worship G-d by doing good things in the world. That is why freedom is such a precious value. It is a freedom to be able to achieve all of these great things, and that is why this was given as the first commandment while they were still in Egypt. This commandment is not only a symbol of their freedom; it is also the first commandment they received as a nation, representing the essence of what Judaism is about: rising above circumstances and using the physical world to achieve the end goal. It was given to them in their slavery to show them they can transcend slavery. There is nothing in the physical world that can enslave you indefinitely. The neshama, the soul, can rise above the limitations of the physical world. This is why G-d gave us the Torah: we have that capacity to rise above any physical limitations around us.
G-d is the ultimate Source
Rav Gifter explains that the significance of the moon as the key factor in the calendar lies in the fact that the moon does not have its own light but merely reflects the light of the sun. A person on earth can look at the moon and think it is an independent source of light. He does not see the reality that the moon is merely reflecting the light of a much greater light, the sun. Rav Gifter explains that the moon is symbolic of the physical world. A person can look at the physical world and think, this is an independent entity, this has got energy, this has got power, this is something which is special in its own right. Yet the source of power, energy, beauty and creativity of this physical world comes directly from G-d, and this world is merely a reflection of Him.
Being able to rise above the physical world really means being able to see it in perspective; to see that the physical world is not the be-all and end-all; to see that it derives all of its energy from G-d. G-d who is intangible sustains the entire world and all of us, and even one moment of life would not be possible without His input. The Talmud states that we have to give thanks to G-d for every breath that we take. Judaism teaches that you have to look beyond the physical and realise what is the real truth, what is the reality of the world. The reality of this physical world is just a reflection of the power and the energy of G-d.
When we look at the moon it may appear as though it is an independent light, but in truth it does not have its own light. The message is that neither does the sun, neither do the stars – nothing exists independently, it all comes from G-d. The moon symbolises the physical world in which we live because it represents the fact that there is nothing there, it is all but a reflection of G-d. He created this world for us to do good and connect ourselves to Him and His eternal values which He revealed in His commandments.